Saudis head to Bahrain as virus travel curbs eased

by Mazen Mahdi / AFP

AL JASRAH, BAHRAIN – Hundreds of cars crowded roads linking Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on Monday, as Riyadh permitted citizens vaccinated against Covid-19 to travel abroad more than a year after barring external trips.

The King Fahd Causeway, a 25 kilometre (16 mile) series of bridges closed in March last year, was packed with traffic as Saudi Arabia reopened its land, sea and air borders.

The easing of rules prompted a rush of holidaymakers to exit the kingdom, following the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

“It’s a beautiful feeling after such a long absence from Bahrain,” said Mohammed, a Saudi travelling to the island nation.

The opening of borders will give a welcome boost to Bahrain’s tourism industry, which is heavily reliant on high-rollers from its conservative neighbour, the Arab world’s biggest economy.

For decades, the causeway linking Bahrain to Saudi Arabia has served as a key artery, bringing visitors who pack out Bahrain’s nightclubs, shopping malls and hotels. But since coronavirus slammed on the brakes, traffic was reduced to a trickle.

Travellers also flocked to Saudi Arabia’s airports on Monday for flights abroad.

“We have been confined within Saudi for around a year and a half, so we can hardly believe the ban is lifted and we can see the world,” said Nawaf al-Askar, a Saudi heading from Riyadh to Bosnia and Herzegovina with his family.

Other travellers were leaving to resume their studies abroad or for  long-delayed business trips.

“We have been dreaming (of travelling) for more than a year… Thank God the airport is open and we can run away,” said Riyadh resident Saleh.

Boon for Bahrain

Bahrain tourism officials were jubilant at the reopening of the causeway, after the long closure which reportedly cost its economy more than $10 million a day.

The tourism sector was hit just as the pandemic triggered a decline in the oil price, in a double whammy for the smallest of the six Gulf Cooperation Council economies which has had to be bailed out by its neighbours in the past.

“It’s a very symbolic occasion, representing the fact that we are… emerging hopefully out of Covid into a stage of normalcy,” said Nasser Ali Qaedi, chief executive of Bahrain Tourism and Exhibition Authority (BTEA).

Bahrain’s economy will see a $2.9 billion dollar boost following the lifting of Saudi restrictions, Al-Arabiya television reported, citing the Bahrain Economists Society.

“Everybody is asking — when are we going to return to pre-Covid levels, and no one can give an answer with a great deal of certainty on that,” Qaedi told AFP. “It’s unlikely to happen this year, however we’re looking to see how much we can progress.”

“We’re anticipating a strong comeback globally, as Covid restrictions starts to ease and people start to find mechanisms to best handle the pandemic.”

The enforced pause has given Bahrain an opportunity to develop its tourism industry — beyond its role as Saudi Arabia’s playground — by drawing on a 5,000-year history.

The relaxing of the travel rules in Saudi Arabia represents an incentive for citizens — barred from travelling abroad since the pandemic began — to get vaccinated.

Three categories of citizens are permitted to travel: those who have received two doses of the vaccine, those administered a single dose at least 14 days prior to travel, and people who have recovered from infection within the last six months.

Unvaccinated children can also travel provided they have an approved insurance policy.

Saudi’s health ministry said it has administered more than 11 million coronavirus vaccine doses, in a country with a population of over 34 million.

The kingdom has reported more than 433,000 coronavirus infections and over 7,000 deaths from Covid-19. Bahrain has recorded over 199,000 cases, including over 730 deaths.

Saudi citizens are still barred from direct or indirect travel to 13 countries, including tourism hotspots Turkey, Lebanon and India due to the threat of the pandemic, the interior ministry said Sunday.